How to help law enforcement’s 'walking wounded'

One retired cop asks: Why aren’t we doing more to treat police officers with post-traumatic stress disorder?

Police officers deal with tragedies every day. But some of them — 15 to 18 percent of those in the U.S. — develop post-traumatic-stress-disorder as a result of doing their job.

“It's a national scandal. It's a national scandal for law enforcement,” said Ron Clark, a retired Connecticut state trooper who now works with Badge of Life, an organization dedicated to researching PTSD among cops. “Up until recent times nobody ever acknowledged [it]. It was just a forgotten area. It was the tough guy image. You've got to be tough.”

Some officers get the help they need. But there are still plenty who don’t. In the last decade, 1,400 officers have taken their own lives, many as a result of PTSD, Clark says — a number that doesn’t include retired police.

But attitudes are starting to shift: A 2013 report from The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) called on police departments to do a better job of recognizing and treating mental health among its officers.

According to the report, “in a profession where strength, bravery, and resilience are revered, mental health issues and the threats of officer suicide are often ‘dirty little secrets’ — topics very few want to address or acknowledge.”  

Talking about post-traumatic stress disorder on the job has become routine for some departments while others have been slower to start. Clark points to four actions departments have taken to better address the mental health needs of its officers — and how others can follow suit.

Require annual mental health checkups

Nate Schlitz, left, talks to an officer dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder at the Mesa Police Department in Mesa, Arizona.
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One of the biggest challenges with treating police who have post-traumatic stress disorder: Many don’t know they have it.  

“We call them the walking wounded,” Clark said. “They become so acclimated to the job [they don’t know they have it].”

Clark's group helped develop a mental health checkup program that police departments can implement on their own. The check-ins are voluntary, confidential and allow officers to pick a therapist of their choice — whether that’s a department psychologist or one completely outside of law enforcement. 

It’s not enough to tell officers help is there when they need it, Clark says. Departments need to help officers before they need it. 

Identify PTSD as an on-the-job injury, covered under workers compensation

Midland police during training.
Midland Police, via Flickr

There are only a handful of states that cover PTSD as an injury under workers compensation, Clark says.

Other states have pushed for similar legislation without success. This year, after several police suicides in Arizona, state lawmakers debated a bill that would have added PTSD to the list of injuries covered by workers compensation. It was defeated.

Efforts like that have failed even in states that have experienced major mass shootings, like Connecticut after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and in Colorado after the 2012 movie theater massacre. 

“I think it’s something that is easier to ignore than to deal with,” said Nate Schlitz, a former police officer in Mesa, Arizona who chose early retirement both to deal with his own PTSD and act as an advocate for those that remain on the force.

In places where PTSD isn’t considered a disability, it can be tough to get help paying for treatment — or time off to see it through.

Some local departments have stepped up with their own policies. In Arizona, the Mesa Police Department recently increased leave for officers involved in traumatic incidents and also mandated at least four days off the job — putting weight behind the message that it’s okay for officers to take the time they need to recover. 

Start a peer support group

Chief John Meza talks to a peer support group at the Mesa Police Department in Mesa, Arizona.
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One of the most effective ways to fight PTSD is to offer support while a traumatic event is happening — and offer a safe place to discuss it afterward. Some departments, like the force in Mesa, Arizona, have created peer support groups where officers can meet and talk about what they see on the streets.

“It’s not a good thing to have an angry cop out there when you have to deal with different incidents happening,” Schlitz said. “I knew the possibility was there of seeing crazy things. I didn’t think that the frequency would be as high as it was.”

It’s not always possible for officers to pinpoint what triggered their PTSD. But for Schlitz, it began in 2009. He shot at a suspect who tried to run over his partner with a car.  Schlitz shot and killed the driver, but also hit — and killed — a 15-year-old passenger in the back seat.

Schlitz became extremely anxious and took a leave, receiving psychological treatment. He returned to work, but found himself on the scene of another shooting. His response? A lot of anger.  

“Quite honestly, it got to the point where I was worried that I would be in prison with the people that I put there because I would do something stupid and let the anger get a hold of me,” he said. “And that’s the last thing I would want to happen.”

You are dealing with officers that will leave the job, some of them [with] soul wounds that will bother them for the rest of their lives, but they won't tell anybody."

Ron Clark

Badge of Life

Schlitz retired from the force and eventually found new work as an officer with  assisting his former department’s Peer Support Team, a group of officers tasked with helping those dealing with trauma.

The officers help the affected officers through mandatory counseling and debriefing services. Schlitz also leads the local chapter of PISTLE (Post Incident Stress & Trauma In Law Enforcement), a voluntary peer support group of current and retired officers that meets once a week.  It’s an independent “safe place” that doesn’t have ties to the department, which makes officers feel more comfortable, Schlitz says.

“My goal is to help them get better, help them experience less symptoms,” Schlitz said. “I have to constantly work on myself and pay attention to the things that are going on in order to keep problems from creeping back into my life.”

States like Colorado have state-sponsored programs to train peer support officers. Wyoming and Oregon are considering similar programs, Clark says.

“You know you, you always hear the officer that dialed the number 400 times and hung up every time. They're fearful and we need to start talking about this. You are dealing with officers that will leave the job, some of them that have soul wounds that will bother them for the rest of their lives, but they won't tell anybody,” Clark said. “We know what doesn't work. Alcohol doesn't work, drugs don't work, sex doesn't work. You have to be able to talk to somebody confidentially.”

Make mental health in law enforcement part of training at the police academy

New York City police officers are sworn in at a ceremony at the Police Academy in New York City.
Getty Images

“We've professed for years now ‘cradle to grave.’ From the time you walk into law enforcement at the academy all the way through until retirement and beyond, you would be educated, you would be able to be trained to help yourself,” Clark says. But that’s not always the case.

Officers are trained in guns, self-defense, driving and investigative tactics, but they also need some psychological tools, starting with the awareness that there are mental health consequences to what they see on the job.

In some ways, an officer who has been trained in mental health is better suited to hit the street than someone who’s only versed in the physical elements of the job.

“[We should have more people saying] ‘I won't take this officer unless he has proper training at the academy,’” Clark said. “If you have an individual that has been educated and trained and has got the support to make this less stigmatized — knowing all the elements that they are confronted when they're actually doing the job — you would have a different type of officer.”

The Mesa Police Department requires all officers that graduate its academy to complete an 8-hour training course on how to recognize stress overload and deal with it.

Making self-care important can also help change a department’s culture, says MPD Chief John Meza.

“It’s okay to recognize that our officers are dealing with stressful situations and they have to deal with it in a healthy mental manner,” Meza said. “I think what we’re trying to do is build a culture [that says], ‘Hey. If you have an incident, it’s okay to talk to somebody. It’s okay to reach out. You know by nature we’re going to be rough and tough in what we do. That’s our business. But mentally it’s okay to try to get some help.’”

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